Because the Mountaineers, frankly, are built to defend the spread, and it’ll see a veritable smorgasbord of it in the next month, starting Saturday against No. 15 Oklahoma. The Sooners, under first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, operate in a similar style to West Virginia, although head coach Dana Holgorsen said each coach has tweaked the offensives to their particular tastes – be that power run game or a more mobile threat at quarterback – since being on the same staff at Texas Tech eight years ago.
No matter the look, the spread’s weakness is the ability for opposing defenses to make plays in space, and defeat both the skill positions and blocking sets in one-on-one match-ups. What the odd stack takes away is largely that additional space in the more traditional areas. The base 4-3 and 3-4 defenses leave open areas that are so familiar to quarterbacks who have been groomed primarily facing the sets that even solid disguise doesn’t always work.
The stack, besides of its slightly unfamiliar base look with the trio of stacked linebackers right on the backside of just three down lineman, takes away another rusher along the line, or from the ‘backer slots, and slides them to the outside in the form of a bandit and spur, which are essentially hybrid safeties. Neither a true run defender, nor a pass coverage specialists, the player skillsets hover in a “tweener” area with the body type to make tackles an defend the run in space, and also handle some of the slot receivers so prevalent in the spread.
Like any defense, there are weaknesses. If Tony Gibson's defense lays back, bringing just three down lineman, and even perhaps a fourth player, pressure is very difficult. If the offensive line can often negate the nose sans a double team, it has numerical advantages of four on either two or three. That forces the stack to bring pressure from various areas, either with the linebackers, or one of the safeties, hybrid or otherwise.
The key to that becoming a success is the ability to disguise it. And then drop players into the vacated areas to ensure that the space desired comes in odd areas and is still lesser than normal because of the amount of more rangy skillsets roaming off the line. The ability to do that, and confuse Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, will be a major key this weekend. Mayfield racked up a school-record 572 yards of offense in the 52-38 win over Tulsa on Sept. 19. That was part of 773 total yards, OU’s most in 27 seasons and fourth-most in history.
Overall, the Texas Tech transfer has connected on 74 of 110 passes for 1,057 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Mayfield, who ranks second in the FBS in individual points per game and third in total offense per game, didn’t face West Virginia’s 3-3-5 while he was at Texas Tech. In fact, Mayfield has limited exposure to the defense, which could work in WVU’s favor.
“The unpredictability of what we do carries so much weight,” cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell said. “If you think we are going to go into a game and not affect their head, which is the quarterback, you’re mistaken. This scheme allows us to put quarterbacks in uncomfortable situations where we can dictate tempo. It’s not just one area that allows us to do that we are doing. The front has to combine with the backend to make it all work.”
It’s arguably the prime match-up, Mayfield’s ability to recognize, then dissect and decide where to deliver the ball against WVU’s disguise. Oklahoma has put up 371 passing yards and more than 21 points per game via Mayfield’s arm, which will be tested by a defense that has allowed a Big 12-low 154 passing yards per game and just three touchdowns overall. WVU is allowing just 45 percent of opposing throws to be completed, while OU hits at a 66.4 percent rate.
So what are the keys? First, corners Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut must be able to handle OU’s wideouts with minimal help. The corners are going to be on an island and expected to respond regardless of facing Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal, Dede Westbrook or Jarvis Baxter. The Sooners show decent size and very good speed, and will attack vertically and high point the ball well. WVU must not take false steps, and be able to flip the hips and run with the Sooners while showcasing body control.
Mitchell spoke to what he terms the “on-snap footwork,” meaning the immediate lower body reaction upon the snap. Those vary widely based around the defensive set and implementation West Virginia is utilizing at that point, and that’s a somewhat complex initiation for new players.
“The on-snap footwork is so critical for us at corner,” Mitchell said. “This past game I probably had 20-25 on-snap footwork situations that they had to do for the game plan.”
West Virginia will at times have help over the top. But it often loves to pressure out of the cover zero, meaning all man across the board.
“You need corners that can play man coverage, need safeties that can play man coverage,” Mitchell said. “You need linebackers who can blitz, and play man in certain situations. It’s all encompassing. It’s not just one group that makes this work. What it does in this conference is that we are set-up for spread teams. When you are defending spread teams you will need a combination of coverages, whether it be man or zone, zero coverage, one, three, two, whatever it may be. It takes a number of disguises to get done what we get done.”
Also check in on the ends to see if they can get any pocket pressure, and if Kyle Rose is demanding the double team. Maryland chose not to rush directly at the interior, which left Rose and linebacker Jared Barber without much action. But last season Oklahoma, with its superior talent and size, gashed WVU by running to the weak side of out varying sets, where it had a numbers and blocking advantage.
The Mountaineers have made adjustments to counter such an issue this season, but linebacker Shaq Petteway could loom large in at least limiting Samaje Perine, and keeping the run game in check enough to force Mayfield to make a handful of plays. Tackling should also loom large, as one of the better offensive counters against any scheme is the simple missed opportunity for a stop.
Oklahoma’s yards after contact last season were extreme, and West Virginia must be able to make the one-on-one stops, especially in the pass game, and slow down the backs enough to where the seven to eight on the back end can aid in the stop.
“Play our game, play our scheme, and play 11 man football,” Chestnut said.
It all reads fairly simplistic, and it can be if not in real time. The difficulty comes when both sides are trying to process excessive loads of information in finite time, and trying to adjust accordingly. It’s like the old saying about product manufacturing: You can have one or two of any three in speed, quality or quantity. But you can’t have all three. That’s the idea behind both the spread and the odd stack, and whichever can impose their will likely wins not just the match-up, but perhaps the game.